The London 2012 Olympic Games are as much a political battle as a sports competition.
Even before the official start to the Games, unexpected drama unfolded on the women’s soccer pitch. When North Korean players’ names and faces appeared beside the South Korean flag before a match against Colombia, horrified North Korean athletes stormed off the field, delaying the game for over an hour. The North Korean coach explained, “I just want to stress once again that our players’ images and names can’t be shown alongside the South Korea flag.” Even with an official apology from the IOC, the players’ reaction was unsurprising, especially considering North Korea’s uncomfortable legacy of gulag-style punishment for those who fail to meet the ruling party’s expectations.
It goes to show – Cold War-style ideological competition isn’t entirely history.
Competing ideologies have been a not-so-subtle part of the Olympics since at least the 1936 “Nazi” Olympic Games in Berlin.
The Games were especially powerful in the Cold War communist-capitalist rivalry, proposes historian Lincoln Allison, because “from a Soviet point of view, given the Cold War and the Western atomic bomb, there were very few outlets in which the Soviet Union could try to show the benefits of its form of society: sport was one and the space race (later) became another” (94).
Allen Guttman similarly understood the Olympics as a testing ground for the “New Soviet Man,” a venue where “athletic triumphs over the ‘capitalist’ nations were an officially recognized goal, and every victory by a Soviet or Hungarian or Czech athlete was heralded as a sign of ideological superiority” (558).
The incredible prowess of athletes from behind the Iron Curtain was undeniable. From the Soviet Union’s first showing in the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics until their last Games in Calgary in 1988, the Soviet Union placed first or second in every overall medal count, with a particularly outstanding showing in gymnastics, athletics, and weightlifting.The now defunct East German state participated in only eleven Olympics competitions overall but won 512 medals. Compared to the next-lowest all-time-medal count in Hungary of 465 medals over 45 Olympic appearances, or the next-highest count in Sweden of 604 medals over 46 appearances, East Germany’s achievement was especially impressive (doping controversies aside).
This “system’s capacity to produce athletes, like its capacity to produce space rockets, cannot be doubted” (Allison 94).
Russian athletes are still serious contenders in the London 2012 Games, but Chinese (and to a lesser extent North Korean) athletes have taken the Soviet Union’s place as competing ideologists in Cold War style. Just as the successes of Soviet athletes legitimized the New Soviet Man, China’s successful bid as host for the 2008 Olympic Games and its impressive medal count has reassured China of its position as a power on the world stage. Chinese athletes are expected to make an aggressive showing in this year’s games as well, perhaps winning China its first gold medal in swimming.
For North Korea, simply putting forth robust, well-fed citizens provides a counter-narrative to the ongoing embarrassment of a country unable to feed its citizens. Bringing home a few Olympic medals can only add to the prestige of North Korea’s newest Supreme Leader.
This year’s Olympic Games will no doubt showcase the triumph of the human spirit as much as feats of physical and mental endurance, and the individual Olympic stories of overcoming obstacles and achieving dreams with continue to inspire and amaze. Through these events, though, the more lasting narratives of national pride – or shame – are being woven, medal by medal.
Allison, Lincoln. “The Olympic Movement and the End of the Cold War.” World Affairs 157 (1994): pp. 92-97.
Guttmann, Allen. “The Cold War and the Olympics.” International Journal 43 (1988): pp. 554-568.